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You’ve Got Hate Mail

The shocking magnitude and audacity of the World Trade Center attack brought me to tears several times last month, whether in front of my TV or while driving — hell, I even found myself inside a church, a place this left-wing lapsed Catholic visits only on Christmas and Easter. Nevertheless, I soon became angry with the “USA Good, Terrorist Evil” line, parroted by newscasters, pundits and the white-guy government officials who are pundits-in-training. Since 1993, I’ve been a full-time organizer for the Bus Riders Union and an L.A. Weekly theater critic. I have also written for other political and theatrical journals, and have witnessed my government push policies that harmed poor people, people of color and women — both here and abroad — more than helped them. Had terrorists, as President Bush claimed, really attacked the United States because they hated her freedom and democracy? Or did our government’s hijacking of other countries’ freedom and democracy have something to do with how the world views America?

I assumed there’d be plenty of “alternative” views about September 11 — and that anyone espousing them risked an ass-whipping from someone wearing a “Nuke Afghanistan” T-shirt or sporting a Chinese-made U.S. flag. This is a country whose citizens’ lives are presumed more valuable than those of people in Afghanistan or anywhere else, and where we celebrate the right to dissent from our government, but only until someone actually tries to practice it.

I was consoled by articles e-mailed from friends and from self-described left and progressive Web sites. Peace groups, socialists and even Fidel Castro condemned the attacks, but also suggested they may have been a grisly response to U.S. support of totalitarian regimes. (Castro also offered medical assistance to the United States.)

These reports and analyses helped me sort out my own opinions, and I felt others could benefit as well. And so, ever the left organizer hoping to win over fence sitters, I began forwarding these postings to both friends and “listservs.”

One of the latter was the Big Cheap Theater(bigcheap@yahoogroups.com), a loose-knit conglomeration of theater artists, supporters and press people. Used mainly to publicize shows and seek technical support, it is also a forum for theatrical and political debates, where I am variously regarded as a passionate advocate or obnoxious kibitzer. These theater folks, I felt, would be more tolerant of such alternative views. Then came the first responses.

You do realize that if you lived in any one of these “tortured” countries they’d kill you for posting such antinationalist sentiment only days after an attack and mass murder . . . I just can’t imagine why people who hate this country so much are still living here when there are far more beautiful places to be . . . maybe you should go for a loooooong visit

Another party felt this way:

And if we really feel the need to blame anyone other than the maniacs who actually perpetrated the horrors, may I suggest we place that blame where it surely belongs: squarely on the shoulders of the fanatics — religious and otherwise — of the right AND the left: the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons . . . and Martin Hernandezes, and all those others who gleefully foment discord, and cynically attempt to use moments of genuine human suffering to further their own grotesque agendas.

I replied that Jerry, Pat and the rest of us would discuss our guilt at our next Fanatics Anonymous meeting. But even as I laughed off most e-mails like this, I was growing angrier at the vitriol spewing across what I considered a forum for colleagues. Back in the Paper Age, people took great pains to establish some level of politeness, even when addressing an opponent. It was diplomacy over demagoguery. But e-mails can be so impersonal, and many people, myself included, are more prone to hit the “Send” key with little thought of the consequences. ä22

Slowly, however, support messages arrived. Some reflected not so much agreement with my forwarded articles (hell, even I didn’t agree with all of them) as support for my right to send them (though some felt I was sending too damn many). Others were grateful for articles that challenged or even changed their beliefs:

I also want to thank Martin and remind those Americans who would rather that he shut up or take things off-list that freedom of speech and vociferous debate are fundamental to the real revolution that the America stands for: democracy.

These e-mails, from both friend and foe, spurred me on to stay up till the wee hours and send more. Soon the rancor dissipated, and humor, a mainstay of the BCT, began creeping back. I joined in and, commenting on the range of opinions being expressed, declared that “opinions are like assholes; everyone has one or is one.” I felt things were back to normal.

Then I got the “death threat”:

Subject: fuck you

since you called me an asshole first . . . you know what — I think its time for you to take your anti American CRAP and fucking move. if we aren’t supposed to trust CNN then why should we trust you and your socialist emails that are probably written by you. for all I know you are terrorist. I’ve heard your a critic, so that’s basically the same thing. I hope you work in a high-rise. this Jihad and genocide you and your favorite dictators are fighting against me, can kiss my NATIVE california ass. as for signing up for the military, I’ll keep it in mind so I can blow the heads off of some those shit bags myself. as my brother’s in the reserves and my other brother is a San Diego PD, I’ll ask them what’s the best way to do execute this . . . until you are willing to do something more than cc worthless email, you should best watch your back

That was spooky. Even though the person sending it tended to take everybody’s e-mails personally, it still had a chilling effect on me. I seemed to have tapped into a primal rage that many were feeling, and I began questioning my original motive for sending the missives. Was I informing or antagonizing? Was I fomenting discord or fostering debate? And was I exploiting “genuine human suffering” for my own agenda? I wondered if what I was doing was really worth the fire it drew.

“If you’re not pissing somebody off, you’re not doing your job.” I learned this lesson long ago from an organizing mentor, and now his words came back to me. Even folks being organized have to get angry at their conditions in order to try to change them. Yeah, I had pissed some people off, but I seemed to be winning more hearts and minds than I lost. And just maybe that anger could be channeled into working to change some of the government’s heinous policies. So, after much soul-searching, I posted more articles, but with more discretion as to the amount — one person’s discretion, as one BCT-er commented, being another’s diarrhea.

Things are calmer now. The BCT talk is now more about healing than hurting. Plans are under way for a fund-raiser on November 11 (Armistice Day!) for the victims of the attack. One of my supporters suggested splitting the money raised with relief efforts for Afghanistan, and one of my detractors agreed it was a good idea. My BCT experience taught me that the L.A. theater community, like many families, can have its intense squabbles, but in times of crisis or celebration it is a family that comes together. In this family, as in my biological one, I am a black sheep (I’m a theater critic, for God’s sake), but I am a proud member of that family nonetheless. In the end, one BCT commentator summed up my own experiences best:

In one weird aspect, it’s just me, a mouse, a keyboard and a screen; but thanks to this incredible community, it feels more like a sad, beautiful, resilient intertwining of hearts coming to terms with grief and rage. I am lifted.


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